Welcome to Episode #160 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Hanna discuss movies that cast Nicolas Cage as a heartthrob leading man, starting withDavid Lynch’s Wizard of Oz homage Wild at Heart (1990).
01:08 Here Before (2022) 04:45 Field of Dreams (1989) 11:50 John Wick (2014)
20:50 Wild at Heart (1990)
40:10 It Could Happen to You (1994) 56:25 City of Angels (1998) 1:12:49 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2004)
In the opening minutes of the coming-of-age fantasy Turning Red, I was crushed by the stomach-pit realization that the movie was Not For Me. Overwhelmed by the sugar-rush hijinks of the soon-to-be-ursine heroine introducing all of her goofball friends & personality quirks in rapid, smooth-surface CG animation, I nearly ejected the DVD and rushed it back to the library in panicked defeat. I’m mostly glad I stuck it out. I understand that Pixar is respected as the current high standard of children’s media, but I’m too disconnected from the comedic sensibilities & visual artistry of modern computer animation to distinguish the gold from the pyrite. It all looks & feels the same. Still, I did appreciate Turning Red as life-lesson messaging for little kids, who are ostensibly Pixar’s target audience even if they’re not the pundits tweeting hyperbolic praise for the studio. The last couple Disney animations I remember watching (Coco & Encanto) taught kids to obey & forgive Family at their own expense; Turning Red directly conflicts that poisonous wisdom, encouraging children to rebel & grow into their own individual selves no matter how uncomfortable it makes their parents. It also frankly discusses menstruation and the other bodily changes of puberty, which feels remarkable & commendable for a film with such a young target audience (even if they’re discussed through the same talking-animal fantasy device that accounts for most modern mainstream animation). Both of these life lessons—that your personal autonomy & chosen community matter more than your family’s wishes and that the daily functions of your body are nothing to be ashamed of—inspired mini online nontroversies among Conservative parents when the film first hit Disney+ a couple months ago, which is how I know that it’s a special work even though it superficially resembles so much mediocre #content in the same medium. Turning Red might not be For Me, but I respect that it’s a genuine good in the lives & brains of the young people whom it is for.
I normally wouldn’t criticize a film I didn’t expect to enjoy from the outset, but there is one moment from Turning Red that has stuck with me in the way it recalls the premise of a recent film that was For Me. Throughout Turning Red, a 13-year-old mama’s girl struggles to distinguish her own personality from the expectations of her supportive but overbearing mother, an already complex dynamic that’s further complicated by both the mother & daughter transforming into gigantic red pandas when they get too emotional. Within their climactic panda fight that threatens to destroy downtown Toronto (or at least ruin a well-attended boy band concert in downtown Toronto), they finally connect on an intimate, honest level – meeting in a calm, psychic space represented by a dense forest. In that forest, the daughter encounters a younger version of her mother when she was 13 and emotionally struggling, comforting her until she regresses from her angry panda state. That moment is strikingly similar to the latest Céline Sciamma picture Petite Maman, in which an 8 year old girl meets & comforts the 8 year old version of her own mother in the woods behind the mother’s childhood home. The mother-daughter dynamic in Sciamma’s film is more distanced than combative, but the conflict is resolved in the exact same way first-time director Domee Shi approaches it in Turning Red. If I were a more well-rounded audience (or, more likely, if I were just a parent), I’d be able to enjoy Turning Red & Petite Maman as unlikely sister films that happened to approach generational bonding & maternal conflict through a similar time-travel fantasy device. Instead, that momentary flash of Petite Maman-style calm in Turning Red only further contrasted Shi’s style against Sciamma’s in my mind, and it only made it clearer that my preferences are heavily weighted to the serener end of that scale.
Petite Maman is quietly magical & emotionally complex. It’s not Sciamma’s best, but it does touch on everything that makes her work great (especially the observational childhood growing pains of Water Lilies, Tomboy,Girlhood, and My Life as a Zucchini, as well as the tragic limitations of time in Portrait of a Lady on Fire) without ever making a big show of it. While Turning Red frantically runs in circles making sure every image & moment is exciting! wacky! and fun!, Petite Maman isn’t in a rush to say or do anything. A young girl magically time-travels to become close friends with a younger version of her mother, but the resulting events of that miracle aren’t especially flashy nor thrilling: play acting, making crepes, having a sleepover, decorating a tree house, etc. I’m not saying that low-key, understated approach is inherently better or more virtuous than the frantic talking-animal hijinks of Turning Red; it just happens to be my tempo. That’s likely because it calls back to a calmer style of live-action children’s media from my youth like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and The Secret of Roan Inish that doesn’t have many modern equivalents in a post-Pixar world. It’s funny that the one moment when Turning Red slows down to match that tempo, it happens to depict a scene straight out of the woodland mother-child time travel premise of Petite Maman. I don’t know that most kids would have the patience to sit with that quiet, unrushed magic while reading subtitled dialogue for the length of a feature film (only a slim 73 minutes in Petite Maman‘s case), but it’s nice to know that it still exists somewhere in modern mainstream children’s media, even if only for a brief reprieve.
There is no reason to pit these two movies about magical mother-daughter relationship repair against each other. Even Céline Sciamma sees the value in Domee Shi’s more chaotic, hyperstimulating storytelling style. In a recent LA Times interview, Sciamma acknowledges that “Pixar’s latest resonates with Petite Maman as a part of a matriarchal mythology finally coming to fruition in cinema as more women are able to tell their own stories.” She says, “A film about the libido of kids is so politically bold. And [Turning Red is] so tender in the release it gives to kids about friendship, about their hearts. It’s an important film. If I had seen it at 10 years old, it would have been my favorite film. I would have been obsessed with it. […] I’ve already seen it three times. I keep telling people to watch it, especially if you have a kid in your life.” Personally, I’m surprised that I made it through Turning Red just the once, but I do agree that its political boldness & emotional tenderness is commendable. That same interview also notes that Sciamma’s film almost resembled Turning Red even more, explaining, “Initially Sciamma was certain Petite Maman should be an animated feature. The locations and otherworldly aspects, she believed, would lend them to be hand-drawn. Also, she thought, an animated version could prove more democratic for children if dubbed to avoid subtitles.” I’m glad that she backed away from the animation sphere, even though it would have been more accessible to younger audiences. Not only does Sciamma’s insistence that Petite Maman works better as a tangible “ghost story with real bodies” ring true, but if there were a hand-drawn animated feature out around the same time as the sugary CG hijinks of Turning Red, I would have been a much, much harsher in my contrarian comparisons of their merits & themes. I should likely stop trying to see the magic most audiences see in Pixar, since I’m just not getting it, but if Sciamma is among its enthusiasts, the problem must be with my eyes & ears, not the content.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Hanna, Boomer, and Britnee watch The Music Lovers (1971).
Brandon: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is awful to watch. Daily doomscrolls of the latest atrocity footage from Ukraine have been a weight on our hearts & stomachs for months, so it’s understandable that Westerners distanced from the conflict feel the urge to do something to help, however small. People are being weird about it, though. Recalling the xenophobic “freedom fries” days of post-9/11 America, there has been a recent online push for “cultural boycotts” of all things Russian, often punishing the lives & work of Russian people for the actions of the Russian government. It’s a modern Red Scare reboot that has US bar owners dumping Stoli vodka down the drain and EA Sports removing digital representations of Russian teams from their video games – symbolic gestures that do nothing to ease the suffering of Ukrainian people but do a lot to fan the flames of Slavophobia.
The strangest example of these cultural boycotts I’ve seen in the past couple months was from, of course, a rando on Twitter. In response to the tweet “banning all things russian is so bizarre and it will definitely trigger an increase in xenophbia against russian (and slav) immigrants”, the rando replied “Don’t think that matters now , I can’t even listen to Tchaikovsky without feeling sick”. That is obviously not the most unhinged exchange I’ve seen on that platform, but it’s still an odd sentiment. It’s also one that’s been echoed in real-world actions, with multiple philharmonic orchestras around the globe removing Tchaikovsky symphonies from their programmes. I really only know two things about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s place in Russian history: he was disregarded by contemporaries for not being nationalist enough in his music (embracing influence from Western outsiders in his compositions), and his cultural importance is still often downplayed by Russian musicologists because he was homosexual. I’m not sure how boycotting a dead, gay Russian iconoclast is supposed to ease the suffering of modern Ukrainians, but I also was never clear on how a “freedom fries” culinary rebrand was supposed to protest France’s opposition to our own government’s invasion of Iraq twenty idiotic years ago.
To be fair, I’m missing a lot of cultural context here, since most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from Ken Russell’s over-the-top, loose-with-the-facts biopic The Music Lovers (starring Richard Chamberlain as the 19th Century composer). The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova (played by Glenda Jackson), whom Russell portrays as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife, as he is anchored to the extreme right end of the Kinsey Scale, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist throughout the film. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, and his wealthy stalker/patron. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship with a longtime male lover reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the climactic sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.
Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is still alive & well in the 2020s, so it’s unlikely that a cultural boycott on Tchaikovsky’s music is an effective way to stick it to Putin & The Kremlin. There’s something genuinely heartbreaking in The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky’s urge to fit in with heteronormative society by pursuing “spiritual relationships” with women in search of “marriage without a wife,” even as Russell finds lewd, lurid joy in the conflict. Tchaikovsky’s violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, and I’m not convinced he would’ve had any easier of a time living & working as a gay man in the country’s modern era – especially considering the legal troubles of contemporary iconoclastic artists like Leto director Kirill Serebrennikov (who incidentally has a movie titled Tchaikovsky’s Wife premiering at this year’s Cannes) and the punk band Pussy Riot. Then again, Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s likely foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.
Hanna, how useful or trustworthy do you think The Music Lovers is as a historical biography of Tchaikovsky? Do you feel like you learned anything about his place in Russian culture from the movie, or do you think it excels more as an excuse for Russell to indulge his own volatile creative impulses?
Hanna: Per Roger Ebert, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible … as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times”. Truthfully, I really didn’t know anything about Tchaikovsky before watching The Music Lovers, and I was doubtful that any part of the film could serve as a remotely reliable biography until after following up on some of the key points online. I think that Ebert is technically correct in his assessment of the film, but I don’t care! It was a pure Russell festival of opulent indulgence, and I was totally into it.
I read up a little bit on Tchaikovsky immediately after returning from Brandon’s watch party (emphasis on “a little bit”), and from what I could glean, the skeleton bolstering The Music Lovers is more or less accurate (e.g., his very compelling patron relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, his disastrous relationship with Antonina, the trauma of his mother’s death from cholera). However, Russell has draped this skeleton in an absolutely thrilling, garish, psychosexual drama. I’m not sure that I learned anything about Russia from this movie, and I don’t think I ever felt a strong “Russian” identity in the film. In fact, I had to continuously remind myself throughout the movie that the film was based in Russia as the actors accosted each other in British accents. The Music Lovers also mostly focuses Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage to Antonina and the period of creative stagnation and isolation that followed, so I always felt like it was more concerned with Tchaikovsky’s mental landscape than anything else; I never had much of a sense of the Russian society surrounding Tchaikovsky during the middle stretch of the movie, except maybe during the Swan Lake performance, where he’s awkwardly wedged between his wife and Count Chiluvsky, surrounded on all sides by members of the Russian art crowd. I’m a passive fan of Tchaikovsky’s music so I had a vested interest in learning about his life, but I found myself more drawn to the hazy dream and nightmare spaces that Russell conjured than the historical, cultural, or objective details of Tchaikovsky’s life. I’m thinking especially of Tchaikovsky’s long stay in von Meck’s “small” cottage, which was an especially evocative, mist-laden affair detailing a distant queerness and eroticism that transcended the historical moment (although it had all the dressings of the period, which were an absolute pleasure to behold). The train car (pure nightmare!) and Tchaikovsky’s apartment (so lush! so pink!) are equally hard to leave behind. At the same time, his mental landscape was, of course, directly informed by the politics of his time, so it’s impossible to separate them completely.
Boomer, I know you’re a fan of Russell’s comingling of high-falutin sensibilities and gaudy mayhem. Personally, The Music Lovers scratched that itch perfectly, and delivered some genuinely moving human moments along with it. How does this stack up for you in the Ken Russell canon?
Boomer: Oh no! Reports of my knowledge of Ken Russell movies are greatly exaggerated! As an adult, I’ve only seen Altered States many times and Salome’s Last Dancethe once, although I have extremely vivid memories of Lair of the White Worm during HBO’s free preview weekend when I was far, far too young for it. Within my limited experience (as a viewer and hearing Brandon talk about them on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast), however, I can confirm that his films are generally disinterested in attempting to adhere to the confines of realism. It’s rare, even among the most talented directors, for the creator to forsake the concept that the camera is objective or an observer and instead make something that attempts to capture the subjectivity of feelings. It’s not real, surreal, or hyperreal: it is simply unreal, but is somehow universal as a result. Altered States has this as its text: that the altered, uh, states of human consciousness are just as real as the one we “agree” is reality. In Salome, it’s all about the play within the film; both are fiction, but the viewer is expected to preferentially conceptualize one as “reality.” In the former, this is done for horror, in the latter it is done for comedy, and in The Music Lovers, it’s done for transcendence.
During the first scene in which Tchaikovsky performs at the piano, I was absolutely captivated by its minimal dialogue and the flights of fancy and fantasy that the various listeners feel as they attend. Similarly, music critic Deems Taylor describes how Fantasia begins with impressions of the orchestra and then moves into more abstract concepts as the music “suggest[s] other things to your imagination,” and that’s often the draw of classical music and the live performances thereof, at least for me. I go into our Movies of the Month with as little foreknowledge as possible, and when it comes to films that have a minimal pop culture footprint (like this one, although it certainly deserves better), that means that I go into these completely blind. Starting at the nine minute mark, it indulges in twelve minutes of people attending a performance and the vision of what the music means to each of them, and although each imagines a different scene, all of them are suffused with an almost palpable yearning, a longing for the romance of familiarity and simplicity, of excitement and newness, and of a time irretrievable. Maybe I’m just dense, but I hadn’t even put together at that point that our lead was Tchaikovsky. (The title card, which reads Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, is both completely accurate and somewhat impenetrable, on purpose). I would have been perfectly satisfied if the whole film had simply been people listening to Tchaikovsky compositions and then having rapturous daydreams. That it leaves that conservatory hall and surveys much larger sections of the lives of others is icing on the cake.
Britnee, every time I engage with a text that’s about a creator—a movie about a playwright, a book about a painter, a comic about an illustrator—there’s a little light that goes off in my head that tells me to look for the way in which the person creating that text is commenting upon the act or process of creation. Not every work that meets that criteria is necessarily being used by the author to talk about their work or the work of others, but it’s a pretty common rhetorical and narrative device. For me, when I apply that perception filter to The Music Lovers, what that part of my brain wants this to be is a story about the death of creativity as it relates to being in a relationship; that is to say, it feels like something that would have been created by someone who, in their personal life, was feeling creatively stifled by their partner. I can’t find any evidence that this was the case for Russell here (he and his first wife had been married for thirteen or fourteen years at this point and would remain so for another eight or nine, and he was making a film nearly every year during this time with no apparent writer’s block), but I wonder if you got that same feeling, or if you felt something different. In other words, what, if anything, do you think Russell is saying about being an artist?
Britnee: While I’m a fan of his movies, I don’t really know that much about Russell as a person or an artist. That’s embarrassing to admit, so shame on me. All I know is that he’s some sort of perverted genius. As the audience journeys thorugh the tortured life of Tchaikovsky, I have to admit there were times that I questioned what was the biographical component of Tchaikovsky versus what was the influence of Chamberlin versus what was the personal touch from Russell. Tchaikovsky struggled to live a truly authentic life, so what did that mean about his art? All of what he longed for was put into his musical creations. Russell’s films are known for being beautiful fever dreams, but I’m sure that he had his fair share of hardships (hopefully not as much as Tchaikovsky). I think he’s trying to remind us all of the struggles that artists endure to give us something that makes our lives more enjoyable. There is always pain lurking behind something beautiful. I didn’t think that Russell was trying to say something about how relationships can hinder the work of an artist, but now that I’m thinking about it, that seems pretty likely considering that the romantic relationships in film were what stopped Tchaikovsky from creating. And yes, it seemed to be more personal than just an exaggeration on a historical fact. I definitely want to give this another watch with this in mind!
Speaking of relationships, I was absolutely fascinated with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Madame Nadezhda con Meck. I was ignorant to this prior to watching The Music Lovers, so I was completely enamored by it on the initial watch. The horniness between the letters and visits to her estate without her physical presence had me so giddy with excitement. It was so kinky and so dramatic!
Boomer: Above, Brandon mentioned four women who governed Tchaikovsky’s life—Nina, her mother, sister Sasha, and Nadezhda von Meck—but we’d be remiss to not mention the fifth: Tchaikovsky’s own mother. Her death haunts the composer for his whole life, literalized by Russell on screen as we see Tchaikovsky as a child witnessing her traumatic death at the hands of physicians attempting to treat her cholera, and those images reappear throughout his life. That Tchaikovsky’s life is in the shadow of such personal and intimate tribulation lends the whole thing an air of not just tragedy but inevitability.
Hanna: I have a plan to mine the world of media to discover the truth about Tchaikovsky! To start, this weird little Disney mini-autobiography from 1959 is lacking in emotionally charged train-car seductions and (of course) absolutely refuses to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but I think the childhood sequence still captures his passionate, manic energy and dependence on platonic female relationships.
Britnee: I’ve loved every Ken Russell movie I’ve ever seen, so I’m on a mission to watch them all! I’m probably not going to come out of this the same. Thank god for therapy.
Brandon: As this is his third entry in our ever-expanding Movie of the Month canon (after Crimes of Passion & Salome’s Last Dance), I believe we should declare Ken Russell as Swampflix’s official MVP. Before he loses this blog-historic lead to the likes of Mario Bava or Tobe Hooper (who both have two MotM selections to their name), I say we all join in Britnee’s mission and rebrand this feature the Ken Russell Movie of the Month, sinking forever further into the madness of his filmography.
Next Month: Boomer presents Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Our current Movie of the Month, 1968’s Oliver!, is an adorable movie-musical adaptation of the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist. It sweetens the bitterness of the original text as best as it can with big-budget, song-and-dance movie magic, but it never fully breaks away from the brutality of its source material. Oliver! is an extravagant Technicolor spectacle composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, stuck halfway between a feel-good crowd-pleaser and a heartbreaking tale of systemic child abuse. I cannot tell if it’s wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s one of the two.
There have been dozens of Oliver Twist adaptations produced in the past century, so there’s plenty more Orphan Oliver cinema to explore after checking out the wonderfully grueling musical. Oliver! has a more distinct angle in its approach to Dickens’s novel than faithful adaptations like David Lean’s 1948 version, though. Proper pairings for Oliver! should all attempt a similar stand-out gimmick or interpretative device beyond dramatically illustrating the source material, especially since there isn’t much value to watching the same story repeated over & over again without that variety in form. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Oliver Twist adaptations that attempt to make the old text feel new again, often through extreme means.
Oliver Twist (2005)
Because there are so many Oliver Twist adaptations out there, Hanna got her titles confused and we ended up watching a modern version directed by Roman Polanski by mistake before meeting a second time to watch the musical. We likely should’ve questioned the programming choice when she referenced the 2005 film as a “childhood favorite” (ouch), but it wasn’t until about 20 minutes into the runtime when Hanna realized the mistake, as it was clear there wasn’t going to be any singing or dancing in Polanski’s adaptation. We finished the movie anyway (which is likely more time & attention than that decrepit rapist deserves) and found it to be a lot more entertaining than initially expected (which is definitely more praise than he deserves).
The Polanski adaptation of Oliver Twist is stubbornly faithful to the events of the source material, so much so that it’s the clearest outlier on this list of Oliver! pairings. Except, the director clearly bristled at the lighter, sweeter interpretations of the novel that have become standard in the years since Oliver!. Polanski’s Oliver Twist is absurdly grotesque, often laughably so. The cruelty, grime, and hopelessness of 19th Century London is pitched so far over the top that you cannot help but find it comedic. Every character wants to see the sweet, young orphan Oliver hang for the crime of existing in their eyesight. Meanwhile, if they just wait long enough, he’d likely die naturally of starvation or infection from touching London’s shit-smeared streets with his bare, wounded feet. It dives so far into the muck & misery of the text that it can only be viewed as a pointed rejection of the movie-musical revisions meant to brighten its narrative with a little song-and-dance sunshine – mainly Oliver!.
Thankfully, you don’t have to watch a Roman Polanski movie if you’re looking for an appropriately grim adaptation of Dickens’s story. The 1996 low-budget indie Twisted offers “a retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, set in a New York City contemporary underground populated by drag queens, drug abuse, and prostitution.” Its determination to make a dark & twizted update to Oliver Twist is likely overkill, since the source material is already plenty grim as is. Still, it’s the only adaptation I’ve seen that goes out of its way to make the text too bitter to stomach – changing the orphan boys’ criminal enterprise from petty thievery to child prostitution and skipping the happy ending for Oliver entirely. Twisted is impressively fucked up, stylish, and chaotic enough to make me nostalgic for the true independent filmmaking of 90s festival programs. It also includes one-of-a-kind performances from William Hickey (as a Lynchian take on Fagin) and Billy Porter (as a transgender take on Bet), which you would think would raise its profile in pop culture nerd circles.
The 2003 film Twist also gritties up the Dickens story in a world of drug addicts and gay hustlers (that time set in Toronto), but it’s hard to imagine there was any novelty left in that approach after Twisted beat it to the punch. Twisted‘s version of grimy NYC street life is illustrated with music video production values, to the point where you halfway expect the camera to pan past Michael Jackson dance-smashing an abandoned car. Whereas Nancy is only implied to be a prostitute in every other version of the story—including the novel—Twisted explicitly opens with her surrogate in the act of hooking. Then there’s the deeply upsetting decision to maintain Oliver’s age as a young minor, while aging up everyone else around him to lecherous adults, grooming the sweethearted orphan for a life of prostitution. The backwards-letters typeface of Twisted‘s opening credits announces that it’s not your grandpappy’s Oliver Twist, and the movie delivers on that promised shock value every chance it gets. It also features Billy Porter quipping that his barroom buddies look “as nervous as a drag queen in a shoe store,” though, so it’s not all grim, grim grime. Just mostly.
Oliver and Company (1988)
Obviously, if you’re the world’s #1 Oliver! fan, it’s unlikely that grimness & cruelty are your top concerns in your Oliver Twist adaptations. If you’re looking for a version of Dickens’s novel that’s even cheerier & schmaltzier than the movie musical, Disney is of course your savior. The 1988 cartoon Oliver and Company arrived just before the Disney Renaissance, at a time when the company was still in heated competition with idealist defector Don Bluth (who beat the film at the box office with The Land Before Time). It’s just as toothless of an Oliver Twist adaptation as you’d expect from Disney, featuring talking kittens and dogs dancing to a cornball pop soundtrack, as well as the decision to play Fagin as a desperate sweetheart voiced by Dom DeLuise. And yet the current state of talking-animal CG animation for kids is so dire that Oliver and Company feels like a timeless masterpiece in comparison. Call it a mehsterpiece. It’s a sweet mediocrity from a lost era of superior visual craft, putting thoughtful care into its detailed animation even while evaporating all of the thought & care out of its literary source material.
In this version, Oliver is an unadopted kitten abandoned on the streets of New York, populated entirely by faceless archetypes who yell “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “Come and get your hotdogs!” He’s taken under the wing of a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel, who fortunately only has one song on the soundtrack) and taught how to pretend to get hit by cars to steal from distraught drivers (a solid grift!). Voice performances from a villainous Robert Loggia and a fabulous Bette Midler (who unfortunately only has one song as well) threaten to add some substantive, mature themes to the proceedings, but the movie is pure Disney schmaltz through & through. It’s really only worth seeking out if you wished Oliver! was even sweeter or if, like me, you’re nostalgic for a time when even the most disposable kids’ media looked nice in its visual craft, regardless of its thematic ambitions.
Between the wide theatrical release of Robert Eggers’s The Northman in American multiplexes and the streaming debut of Matt Reeves’s The Batman on HBO Max, it’s been a big week for tough-guy action movies about Vengeance. I expected to make pithy jokes about The Batman & The Northman‘s thematic parallels as superhero origin stories about traumatized orphans growing up, getting buff, and seeking bloody revenge on the criminals who murdered their fathers. It turns out the two films genuinely do have a lot in common, though – right down to those orphans’ childhood phases being played by the same actor: 12-year-old newcomer Oscar Novak. What really struck me in these two sprawling epics about brute-force vigilante justice was the tender hearts beating just below their hardened, muscle-men surfaces. Both movies announce themselves to be growling heroes’ journeys in search of “vengeance”, but in time they both lament the ways those heroes’ tunnel-vision revenge missions ruin their romantic prospects with the (equally violent, vengeance-obsessed) women in their lives. It’s kind of sweet.
I was prepared to dismiss these films based both on their macho surface details and on their directors’ respective obsessions with realism & historical accuracy. I am philosophically opposed to this current trajectory where we just keep making Batman movies increasingly “realistic” & colorless forever & ever, to the point where it already takes 90 minutes of narrative justification for The Penguin to waddle (after Batman & Gordon bind his legs together for a brief visual gag). Likewise, the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way in Eggers’s calling-card debut The VVitch was its concluding title card that emphasizes its narrative was drawn “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records” from 17th Century New England, preemptively defending its more fantastic deviations from reality with the noble shield of Academic Research. His 1st Century Icelandic tale The Northman appeared to be even more obsessed with grounding its breaks from reality in the Valhalla of “historical accuracy”, which is not something I especially value in my high-style genre films. It’s the kind of literal, pedantic thinking that appeals to Redditor bros with years-long grievances over movies’ logistical flubs & narrative “plot holes” but little to say about how art makes them feel. That’s why I was so pleased to discover that both The Batman & The Northman had more emotions filling their hearts than expected, considering all the real-world logic weighing on their minds.
The Batman is essentially a 2020s goth-kid update for The Crow, with Robert Pattinson eternally brooding under his emo bangs, smeared mascara, and Nirvana-blaring headphones – alone in his logically plausible inner-city Batcave (an abandoned subway station). He stubbornly insists on living in isolation & despair as if it were a badge of honor, but when he finds a kindred goth-girl spirit in Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz, rocking the same rainbow-dyed bobs she sported in Kimi) he reluctantly warms up to a fellow human being for the first time in his miserable life. The Northman plays out much the same, with the revenge-obsessed Viking warrior Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) declaring he has “a heart of cold iron” and a “freezing river of blood that runs in [his] veins” until he meets his romantic, dark-sided counterpart in a revenge-obsessed Pagan witch (Anya Taylor-Joy). When the witch coos, “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds,” it plays like a dual-purpose blood pact & marriage proposal. Both the Batman& the Northman have genuine love interests that meet them on their respective levels of hedonistic bloodlust, which you might not expect from this kind of tough-guy power fantasy.
Neither the never-ending Batman franchise nor the Robert Eggers Extended Universe are strangers to lust. Batman & Catwoman’s S&M power plays in Batman Returns are legendary and, not for nothing, the main focus of the script. Meanwhile, the romantic chemistry of The Batman is a slow, quiet burn, taking a back seat to the creepy found-footage terror attacks & old-fashioned detective work of Batman’s search for The Riddler. Likewise, The Lighthouse is the one Eggers film that fully succumbs to the hunger & ecstasy of sex, while The Northman is much more tender & low-key in its central romance. It’s telling that neither the Batman nor the Northman abandon their single-minded missions for vengeance to blissfully pair up with their partners in thwarting crime; they both give up their chances for happiness to pursue vengeance at all costs. Neither romance blooms to its full potential, but I still appreciated that these films had major soft spots in their hate-hardened hearts. For a couple of tough-guy movies about vengeance, I was shocked that both films had genuinely romantic moments that made me go “Awwww <3” (between all the bombings & beheadings).
My preference is for Batman movies to be as goofy & horny as possible, but I’ll settle for creepy & romantic if that’s what’s on the table. The Northman has similar saving graces. It’s not soft & sweet enough to be just another live-action Lion King (which, along with Hamlet, was inspired by the same Scandinavian legend as Eggers’s film), but it is at least romantic enough to be more than just a live-action Spine of Night. It’s wonderful to feel hearts beating under these films’ rock-hard pectorals, when they just as easily could have been militant, macho bores.
Between a long Easter weekend off work and being knocked off my feet by a painful gout flare-up (damn those tasty crawfish!), I have seen a lot of movies in the past few days. Too many, even. My normal process for this blog is to give each film a full, individualized review, but it would take me way too long to clear out this backlog before I could move onto new material. And since that sounds like more work than fun, it’s time for some spring cleaning. So, here are a few brief, to-the-point reviews of new releases I’ve seen over the past week, ranked from best-to-least-best.
You Won’t Be Alone
Between Border, November, Tale of Tales, Field Guide to Evil, Lamb, The Other Lamb, and Hagazussa, there has been an entire industry of traditionalist folktale cinema that has emerged in the wake of The VVitch – not to mention the folk horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that collects them all like Pokémon. It’s easy to take You Won’t Be Alone for granted in such a crowded field of similar titles (which vary wildly both in quality and in creativity), but it still manages to be uniquely unnerving. I’m not sure how many coming-of-age folktales about shapeshifting, bodyhopping witches (i.e., Wolf-Eateresses) you’ve seen in your lifetime, but this was my first. I’m also willing to bet it was the first ever to be set in 19th Century Macedonia.
Over the course of the film we watch Old Maid Maria, the most feared Wolf-Eateress of all, train a child in the art of stealing life & likeness from human & animal victims alike. Raised in a cave without much direct human contact (in a futile attempt to avoid this apprenticeship), the child learns how to relate to other people by unconvincingly pretending to be a Normal Human in variously shaped, gendered bodies. Meanwhile, Old Maid Maria chides her for not rejecting humanity entirely and just snacking on human flesh for sustenance. If You Won’t Be Alone is meant to be dealt with as a horror film, it is Imposter Syndrome Horror, where you never feel like you fit in with any community while everyone else seems to excel at it effortlessly. Or maybe it’s just a nightmare scenario where Freddy Krueger is your adoptive mother. If it is not a horror film, then it’s a confounding supernatural drama about all the various ways life can be miserable unless you luck into a well-nurtured youth. I greatly enjoyed being perturbed by it, even its brand of eerie, back-to-basics folktale has become a matter of routine in recent years.
The clever dual-purpose title Dual refers both to human cloning and to duels to the death. Karen Gillan stars as a woman who has herself cloned so her memory can live on past a terminal illness, then is forced to duel that clone when she unexpectedly recovers. It is a comedy of passive aggression, wherein Original Sarah finds herself annoyed with how much shinier Clone Sarah’s hair is, or how she weighs slightly less, or how much more accommodating she is to friends & family – all great motivation for killing her. It’s also a comedy of isolation, taking a macro view of all the commodified ways we’re supposed to maintain our bodies & our relationships in an increasingly passionless, distanced world.
Director Riley Stearns hammers away at the same flat, matter-of-fact line deliveries and overall comedic bitterness he played with in The Art of Self-Defense. Characters speak in clipped, emotionless stabs; they text with abrupt punctuation. Instead of satirizing the absurdity of traditional masculinity this time, though, he chisels at the absurdity of the self-care industry, from gym training to support groups to talk therapy. Call it The Art of Self-Improvement. Dual is a squirmy little black comedy about all the little ways you hate yourself and your life, with no chance for genuine change no matter how hard you try. It’s funnier than it sounds.
The Pink Cloud
The Brazilian sci-fi chiller The Pink Cloud is also a dark film about isolation & passive aggression, but you need to get past the cosmic coincidence of its premise to contend with that. Without reason or explanation, pink clouds rapidly appear across the globe, killing anyone who breathes them within seconds and tinting everything a pale Millennial Pink. It’s a purely supernatural event, as the poisoned air does not pass through gaps in windows and cannot be safely filtered through masks. The clouds exist simply to force everyone inside, communicating only through social media and purchasing necessities through a system of drones & tubes. Stuck at home for years, we watch one couple fall in and out of love after hunkering down together when the clouds interrupt what was supposed to be a one-time hookup.
I’ve seen plenty of accidentally pandemic-relevant sci-fi & horror films over the past couple years (Palm Springs, She Dies Tomorrow, Little Fish, Spontaneous, etc.), but this is the first one I’ve seen outright apologize for the coincidence. I understand the impulse to include a title card that emphasizes the film was written & produced pre-COVID, since it includes many dead-on parallels to our last couple years of isolation & rot – from major cultural shifts like the new class system of work-from-home jobs vs. “essential” service work to the emergence of boredom-inspired fads like adult roller-skating. The filmmakers had a lot on their minds about climate change, depression, and the general isolation of modern living, so it must be frustrating to see their work reduced to a pure-COVID metaphor. Still, there have been enough of these accidentally-relevant genre pictures over the past couple years that it’s impossible to not be a little reductive about their collective emotional impact. File this particular accidental-pandemic-chiller under the same anti-romantic subcategory as Vivarium, although it’s more melancholic than abrasive.
Michael Bay returns to basics with a retro, regressive thriller about two tough-guy criminals who steal an ambulance during a botched bank heist (one out of medical desperation, one out of greed), and enter into a wild police chase around Los Angeles in the clunky vehicle. Ambulance is a typical 90s Bay thriller in all of the exact visual, visceral, and political ways you’d expect, except with two major updates: flamboyant exploitation of drone-camera tech and a wild-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The cameras are piloted by young, professional drone racers, adding a nauseating velocity to even the pre-car-chase establishing shots, often for no discernible reason. Gyllenhaal matches their gonzo energy as the ambulance heist’s main villain, playing the role as part criminal mastermind, part Nic Cagian freak show.
Gyllenhaal and the drones are enough to make Ambulance feel novel & exciting, but maybe not enough to fully justify the feeling of being bashed in the skull for 135 relentless minutes. I was more obliterated by it than I was “entertained”, but I suppose that’s exactly what Bay’s paid to do. He’s good at his job, the bastard.
If you are somehow unaware, Aline is an unauthorized Celine Dion biopic in which 57-year-old French comedian Valérie Lemercier plays the Québecian chanteuse from ages 12 to 54, with the aid of shoddy CGI. I’ve been greatly anticipating Aline since professional smartasses Kyle Buchannan & Rachel Handler sang its uncanny praises at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, so it was bizarre to watch the Event Film in an otherwise empty suburban megaplex. I cannot imagine what it would be like to stumble into it totally unprepared for Lemercier’s de-aged “transformations”, but it turns out that’s not really a valid concern, since most people don’t even know this curio exists. Even the posters & trailers emphasize the gobsmacked blurbs from Handler & Buchannan at Cannes as its only selling point, making it clear who is likely to show up at the theater – freaks like me.
Aline is an odd mix of surrealist geek show & genuine biopic cliché. Most movie nerds will compare it to the unconvincing early-years play acting of Walk Hard, but it reminded me more of the absurdist artificiality of Annette, sometimes slipping into the broad crowd-pleasing appeal of a My Big Fat Québecian Wedding. Questions of its sincerity & intent will linger with me for a while, but it does nail the only two things I know about Dion: she makes goofy faces, and the age she met her late manager-husband is alarming. The movie constantly references “Aline Dieu’s” age, so we know exactly how old she is within the drama (helpful, since her face remains a static 57-years-old throughout), which only makes you dwell on the discomfort of her romance with her middle-aged divorcee manager. When she is 12, she huffs his cologne as a private kink. When she is 17, she lusts over a picture of him that she keeps tucked under her pillow. When she is 20, she initiates their first, fully consensual consummation. It was already a deeply strange, unsettling dynamic in real life, so it’s oddly appropriate that this “work of fiction freely inspired by” it is also deeply strange & unsettling.
I don’t pay much attention to DC Comics’ straight-to-video animated features, but I was impressed enough with the visual imagination & propulsive energy of Batman Ninja to keep my eye out for similar releases. Unfortunately, Catwoman: Hunted is not nearly as ambitious of an anime take on the DC brand as Batman Ninja. It features one of the coolest comic book characters of all time doing her usual thing (jewel heists, cat puns, bisexual seductions, etc.), and it throws everything from demons to ninja assassins to mech-suit warriors in her way. And yet the result feels tame in comparison to the last time the company dipped their toe into anime waters, which is a shame.
Thankfully, Catwoman: Hunted avoids total stylistic tedium by borrowing some jazzy cool from Cowboy Bebop. There’s a jazz infused retro-futurism to it that makes for a fun novelty (who wouldn’t be curious to see Catwoman in a Cowboy Bebop crossover?), even if the whole thing feels pleasantly slight & forgettable. While not exactly the cat’s pajamas, it is purrrfect viewing for a lazy afternoon (followed, of course, by a cat nap).
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britneewatch Oliver! (1968).
Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.
The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.
I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?
Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does. His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company. If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism. As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so. Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against. The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging. The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse. What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing. And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.
I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two. There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way. When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing. However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive. It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out. It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel). The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm. Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook? Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?
Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.
The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.
I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?
Boomer: I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.
I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose).
Boomer: For my money, the best version of “I’d Do Anything” is this one by Fall On Your Sword, the same folks behind “Shatner Of The Mount.”
I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done.
Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions. Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children. A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews! It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge). These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.
Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!
Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.
Until a couple weeks ago, there were exactly two things I “knew” about Jayne Mansfield: she was a cheap imitation of Marilyn Monroe, and she died in a horrific car accident. It turns out both of those bullet points were hazier & more complicated than I understood them to be. Yes, Mansfield died tragically young on a late-night drive to New Orleans but, no, she was not decapitated as the sensationalist urban-legend reports of her death would have you believe. Yes, Mansfield was often cast and marketed as a Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe alternative, but she managed to push her screen persona beyond that rigid typecasting to become her own distinct, wonderful thing. I always thought of Jayne Mansfield as someone who starred in a couple minor roles before her life & career were abruptly cut short, but she’s got a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb—ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies—most of which have nothing to do with her designated place in Marilyn’s shadow. I have a daunting curriculum ahead of me in parsing out exactly who Jayne Mansfield was as an onscreen persona, a too-long-delayed education I hope will override my initial, ignorant assumptions about her.
Since I’m not going to watch all three dozen of her acting credits in a single go, the best crash-course education in Jayne Mansfield studies I could figure was checking out her two most iconic roles: her collaborations with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin. Their first film together, the 1956 rock-and-roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, was my most obvious entry point, since it’s something I’ve seen lovingly referenced in several John Waters pictures. Not only do the rock-and-roll teens’ reaction shots in Hairspray pull direct influence from The Girl Can’t Help It‘s various concert performances, but Waters also lovingly parodied Mansfield’s title-song strut for one of the very best gags in Pink Flamingos. In the Frank Tashlin version, Mansfield struts down a city block in a form-fitting dress, while every man she passes on the street instantly overheats at the sight of her – milk boiling out of bottles & popcorn popping out bags in their hands like premature ejaculate. In the John Waters version, Divine recreates the exact same strut while bewildered Baltimoreans gawk at her in confusion & disgust, stunned in total awe of her filthy divinity. In case the connection isn’t clear, both versions are set to the Little Richard tune “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which made the Tashlin movie a must-see movie on my watchlist for years.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that The Girl Can’t Help It is the ideal Mansfield talent showcase. It’s fantastic as a rock-and-roll concert film, featuring a wealth of standalone performances from Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, and the like. It’s also the ultimate example of a movie studio pigeonholing Mansfield as a Marilyn stand-in instead of allowing her to be her own thing. Monroe made her secretly-smart-ditz schtick look so easy that you can only tell how tricky it is when someone else bungles it. Mansfield is adorable as the drag club caricature of that archetype, at least, and it’s amusing that her … questionable talents are essential to the plot of her starring-role debut. She plays the reluctant girlfriend of a gangster who’s forcing her into a nightclub-singer career she does not want (or even have the talent) to pursue. She looks fantastic in her snatched-waist wardrobe—an effect wonderfully compounded by the endless supply of horndog men who make cartoon wolf-eyes at her—and her breathy obliviousness is a delightfully absurd exaggeration of retro femininity. It just sucks that the comparisons to Marilyn’s similar not-so-ditzy ditzes are so unavoidable, since her character and her performance are not allowed to have the same depth & nuance as Monroe’s most iconic roles.
It wasn’t until her next Tashlin collab, the 1957 ad industry satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, that Mansfield really came into her own as a screen persona. Her drag-club Marilyn caricature is adorable enough in The Girl Can’t Help It, but she pushes the act to such a transcendent extreme in the next film that the comparison is obliterated entirely. Mansfield is pure bimbo mayhem in Rock Hunter, turning every inhale of breath into an orgasmic squeal and every costume change into a mind-blowing reveal. Instead of playing an exaggeration of Monroe, she’s playing an exaggeration of herself – complete with verbal, metatextual references to her Girl Can’t Help It stardom. It’s like watching a pro wrestler get assigned a go-nowhere, mood-killing gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a cartoonish extreme. Even the teen girls of Rock Hunter have a crush on Mansfield, not just the men passing by, and you feel that lasting Ultimate Bimbo impact influence future women who’ve played that same archetype (notably including Elvira, whose pet poodle in Mistress of the Dark was likely an homage to Mansfield’s here). Tashlin matches Mansfield’s nuclear zaniness in his direction of Rock Hunter too, firing off rapid-fire sex jokes and TV commercial parodies as if he were consciously bridging the temporal gap between The Marx Brothers and ZAZ. In retrospect, The Girl Can’t Help It feels like a trial run for the film where they really set out to let loose, which tracks with the knowledge that Rock Hunter started as a Broadway stage play (also starring Mansfield) before The Girl Can’t Help It was developed.
I understand, logically, why The Girl Can’t Help It is the Tashlin-Mansfield collaboration that’s getting a spiffy new Criterion restoration. There’s a distinct pop-art iconography to it that is undeniably potent, as indicated by the homage of its titular strut in Pink Flamingos (which is also getting a Criterion polish this year). The movie is very proud of its technical beauty, bragging about its indulgences in “the grandeur of Cinemascope” and “the gorgeous, lifelike color of DeLuxe” in its William Castle-style intro. It’s clear to me, though, that Tashlin & Mansfield were at their absolute best in their latter collaboration, which exaggerates everything that’s great about The Girl Can’t Help It (except the music) to a beautifully ludicrous extreme. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? taught me how to appreciate Jayne Mansfield as her own unique persona, breaking her out of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator box I used to store her in (despite her Rock Hunter character being written as a spoof of Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch). Now all I have to do is catch up with the thirty other Mansfield movies I haven’t seen so I can fully understand her surprisingly extensive career as an actress. So far, I’ve only read the syllabus and skimmed the highlights; it’s time to do the coursework.
I was shocked—SHOCKED!—to see Jared Leto finally give the first entertaining performance of his career in House of Gucci. He was easily the best part of Ridley Scott’s crimes-of-fashion melodrama, despite working alongside dependably entertaining co-stars like Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and Al Pacino. Out-overacting Pacino would be an impressive feat for any performer, but it’s especially staggering coming from Leto. And yet his oblivious goofball energy is the only sign of life to be found in the film. Otherwise, House of Gucci is too conceptually silly to be so well-behaved. It asks the audience to take its exaggerated Italian accents and vintage fashion stunts seriously for the sprawling length of a Godfather movie, when the best it has to offer is a few flashes of outrageous outfits & sitcom hijinks; so, less The Godfather and more an overlong episode of The Nanny. In that context, there is only one knucklehead in the cast who perfectly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it), and he happens to be one of the most annoying Hollywood personalities around.
There is no other context where engaging with a Jared Leto performance is a positive, charming experience. Because of his literal, boneheaded approach to “method acting”, Leto is more of a social terrorist than he is a professional entertainer. His main job as an actor is to derail everyone else’s work on-set by remaining “in-character” as villainous pests, making his co-workers’ jobs as difficult as possible for no practical, discernible reason. After months of tabloid stories about Leto blinding, starving, or gorging himself for a role, he’ll reliably put in a performance so bland & textureless that you forget he was even in the movie (i.e., Lonely Hearts, Blade Runner 2049). In his greatest act of “method acting” terrorism to date, Leto “gifted” his Suicide Squad co-stars animal corpses, anal beads, and used condoms while “working” in-character as The Joker. His scenes were then almost entirely cut out of the film, making it clear that the horror stories behind his performances hold a more substantial place in our cultural imagination than the actual footage of those performances. All anyone remembers is his personal misbehavior, not his professional product. He’s effectively being paid to be an obstacle, not an actor.
This is not true in House of Gucci. Lady Gaga’s award-season ambitions completely overpowered Leto’s method-acting shenanigans during that production. Gaga’s interviews about needing “a psychiatric nurse” on-set because of how far she pushed herself in her portrayal of Patrizia Gucci—or how the real-life Patrizia put a real-life curse on her as retribution for that portrayal—filled the exact role that reports of Leto’s method-acting pranks usually fill: they’re way more interesting & fun to talk about than anything she accomplishes onscreen. Meanwhile, every single time Leto appears in his fat suit & bald cap combo as Paolo Gucci is a pure delight. He looks ridiculous, and his personality matches, playing Paolo as an overgrown Pinocchio with a wonderfully tacky fashion sense. I’ve never been so excited to see Jared Leto appear onscreen, knowing that every single line-delivery was going to be an absolute howler. And yet there was no significant tabloid baggage that came with the performance besides an off-hand joke(?) about “snorting arrabbiata sauce” and having “olive oil for blood” while immersed in the role. Gaga hogged up all the method-acting spotlight this go-round, and Leto was—against all odds—simply fun to watch.
I do not want to get into the business of becoming a Jared Leto apologist, so thank The Dark Lord for Morbius. There was something weirdly comforting about seeing Leto return to his same old tedious self in his very next role after House of Gucci. He is completely anonymous as Doctor Michael Morbius, the vampire superhero, delivering a lead performance just as forgettable as his fleeting appearances in movies he’s barely in. His line-deliveries are so flat & inflectionless that you cannot distinguish when he’s telling a joke. His only detectable facial expressions are computer-generated, signaling the emergence of an entertaining monster that the self-conflicted Morbius fights to contain under his boring, placid surface. The only brief moment when it’s apparent what Leto brings to the role is a scene where he appears buff & shirtless, enjoying his new vampire-bat superstrength before quickly covering up, lest the audience actually gets excited about something. He looks phenomenal for a 50-year-old, but there’s nothing else about his screen presence that could possibly impress an audience – mostly because the audience is snoring in their seats by the second act.
It’s not enough for Leto to be a bore. For him to truly be back on his bullshit, he needs to be a bore and a nuisance, making it unnecessarily difficult for his collaborators to record his trademark tedium on film. That’s why it’s a blessing to see Morbius director Daniel Espinosa confirm reports that Leto frequently derailed production with 45-minute bathroom breaks, remaining in-character as a physically disabled man (pre-vampire powers) between takes. Interviewer Mike Ryan prompted Espinosa with the anecdote, “Someone told me that Jared Leto was so committed to playing Michael Morbius that even when he had to go to the bathroom, he would use his crutches and slowly limp to get to the bathroom. But it was taking so long between for pee breaks, that a deal was made with him to get him a wheelchair so someone could wheel him there quicker and he agreed to that.” Espinosa confirmed, “Yeah. Because I think what Jared thinks, what Jared believes, is that somehow the pain of those movements, even when he was playing normal Michael Morbius, he needed, because he’s been having this pain his whole life.” That is the exact level of off-screen bullshit we expect from Leto: going out of his way to inconvenience his coworkers so he can deliver a flavorless, textureless performance of no consequence. Everything is in its rightful place again; order has been restored.
Of course, not everyone is not going to agree that Leto’s affable performance in House of Gucci is superior to his dreary return-to-form in Morbius. In fact, The Hollywood Reporter headlined its Morbius review with the blurb, “After his bizarrely cartoonish turn in ‘House of Gucci’, it’s a relief to see Jared Leto channel his lust for transformative characters into a film that’s quite literally written into the role’s DNA,” a line that was apparently written to troll me, specifically. Some people are just determined to not have fun, and there is no hope for them. At least we can all agree that House of Gucci was a fluke, a one-of-a-kind miracle where a Jared Leto performance was worthier of discussion than the backstage circumstances of its production. And so Morbius was a much-needed cooldown & career re-set, so that we don’t get too excited about seeing another fun, “bizarrely cartoonish turn” from him. Leto giveth, and Leto taketh away.